July 4, 2008

Who Owns Science?

Padlock and Key picture by Imagined RealityThis thing called Science, whatever it is, who actually owns it? Scientists? Technology companies? Industrial Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical companies? Investors? Shareholders? Governments? Universities? Philanthropists? Charities? Publishers? Joe Public? Or none of the above…?

  1. The Scientists. At the front line of any scientific discovery is a scientist, from the lofty heights of the hallowed Professor to the lowly lab-rat or student, slaving away at the bench, scientists work on the front line Science. For most scientists, they make a living from their inventions, ideas and discoveries that they own. Science is their livelihood, © The Author(s).
  2. The Engineering and Technology companies. There’s a whole lot of Science behind commercial engineering and technology. Take Google’s software for example, the computer science and mathematics behind search technology is substantial, the PageRank algorithm is the basis for all that income generated from advertising, so not surprisingly it’s been patented. That’s Science, but you can’t see it, because it’s private not public.
  3. The Pharmaceutical companies. Have a look at any of the top ten best-selling drugs worldwide during 2006. Obviously, lots of Science and Biotechnology went into developing those lucrative cash-cows that pharma companies make their living from, while funding the effort to find the new drugs for the future. Science is how these businesses stay in business and keep their investors and shareholders happy, Science is how they make a profit, so they own it.
  4. The Governments. Lots of Science is funded by different governments around the globe, they’ve got a stake in it too. The American government spends the most, pouring billions of dollars into all kinds of basic and applied research.
  5. The Universities and Research Institutes. All that Science going on in different Universities and Research Institutes around the globe, they’ve got a claim on it too. Without these institutions, most Scientists wouldn’t have a place to work.
  6. The Philanthropists and Charities. It’s not just governments who fund science, charities foot the bill too. Now that Microsoft instigator Bill Gates has retired, he’ll be pumping all his billions of dollars into the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, funding a whole lot of Science. There’s plenty of other charities and foundations like it, big and small, the Wellcome Trust, Leverhulme, MacArthur Foundation, etc the list goes on and on.
  7. The Scientific Publishers. Look at any paper in a top-tier prestigious Scientific journal like Nature, Science or PNAS. You’ll see a big fat copyright sign © on pretty much every single one. © Nature Publishing Group, © American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), © The National Academy of Sciences, All Rights Reserved. It’s not just them either, © Elsevier B.V., © Oxford University Press and so on. You could be forgiven for (wrongly) thinking it’s the publishers who own the Science…
  8. The Public. Since we all benefit from it, and pay for it through our taxes, and charitable donations, we all own it. The public at large own science, as John Ziman once put it, “Science is Public Knowledge”. According to this definition, you could argue, if it’s not in the public domain, then it’s not Science. All that secret science that goes on inside commercial companies, behind closed doors? It’s not Science, until it’s public. That means YOU, yes you, Jo / Joe Public, everybody reading this owns Science.
  9. Nobody. Nobody owns Science, not even the public, Science is just there. The science of tomorrow, that’s not owned by anyone either, it’s just waiting to be discovered or invented…

But hey, what do I know? You don’t want to listen to me, I’m just a humble postdoc. If you would like to join the debate, and you are anywhere near Manchester, UK, you might be interested in “Who Owns Science?”, a public lecture and debate. Join Anna Ford chair a discussion lead by Nobel laureates John Sulston and Joseph Stiglitz on just who the hell is it who owns this crazy little thing called Science?


  1. Science is being held back by outdated laws: The question “who owns science?” is now crucial, The Times (of London), 2008-07-05
  2. Medical research is ‘hindered by out-of-date laws’ System is inefficient and corrupt, say scientists, The Times (of London), 2008-07-05
  3. John Sulston argues for open medicine: A Nobel Prize-winning scientist has hit out at what he terms the “moral corruption” of the medical industry, BBC News 2008-07-04
  4. Peter Murray-Rust [2008] John Sulston calls for reform of IPR policy
  5. Daniel Cressey [2008] The Great Beyond: The Manchester Manifesto

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  1. Lovely post.

    The publishers don’t own the science of course. But a small correction to your point about them:
    you won’t see “copyright” signs on research in Nature. The copyright of the research published in Nature journals rests with the authors (Nature has a license to publish from the authors).

    Comment by maxine — July 5, 2008 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

  2. Industrialization feeds science, and science feeds industrialization. Its a vicious circle.
    This has caused the ‘descended/fractured’ view of things recently; AKA: dehumanized humanization.
    But what do I know? I know that science is too materialistic to ‘account’ for things like consciousness.

    Comment by seeker767 — July 5, 2008 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

  3. @maxine, hi maxine@nature glad you liked the post.

    As for copyright at Nature, there is no mention of the authors copyright as far as I can see. Take a paper in this weeks copy “Dissecting direct reprogramming through integrative genomic analysis” DOI:10.1038/nature07056, the full text version on the web says © 2008 Nature Publishing Group at the bottom, while the pdf version says “©2008 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved” on every page?

    Unless I’m missing something?

    @seeker767 “Science too materialistic”? Some science may be financially motivated, but certainly not all. When NASA put a man on the moon, they didn’t do it for financial profit. Ditto many other areas of Science, human genome, large hadron collider, you name it.

    Comment by Duncan — July 5, 2008 @ 6:56 pm | Reply

  4. Duncan,

    I think you have misinterpreted seeker767’s comment about materialism. I think he/she was speaking to the nature of hard science being primarily relegated to the material world that can be more easily poked, prodded, and measured–even if that poking, prodding and measuring is in terms of the smallest particle or in billions of light years, it’s still the material world being examined.

    Comment by Paul McCord — July 5, 2008 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  5. It’s an odd question. You might as well ask “Who owns sunshine, culture or truth?” For a useful discussion, rather than it be a talking shop for its own sake, you’ve got to ask something better.

    Of course no one “owns” science – but everyone benefits from it in different ways.

    Comment by Keith Mansfield — July 6, 2008 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  6. Odd question maybe, but also a big question. Science is all about big questions, and it generated lots of interesting discussion (which is the main thing).

    Comment by Duncan — July 6, 2008 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  7. what a great question! ownership issues can be irritating. why do we have borders and fences? there is the use of claiming ownership as a source of probable market profit. there is contribution to society. there is protecting ideas from other people making a profit. we have an economic structure, rules/laws which dictate ownership to protect profits. unfortunately, much of the added frou frou of money concerns prevents people from having access to a lot of what is invented. contribution becomes lost to the argument of the bottom line. and people lose their lives daily.

    Comment by masha — July 6, 2008 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

  8. God owns science!

    Comment by bobdabalina — July 7, 2008 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  9. Nice post, but it begs the question. What is this “science” whose ownership is up for grabs? Is it the same science that everyone wants to own? For example, would the public want to own what the journals have? Or would they rather own what industries have? Wouldn’t they rather just have the products?

    Comment by Arhopala Bazaloides — February 19, 2009 @ 4:44 am | Reply

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